To speak of the “development" of American glass as though it were a gradual climb from primitive to aesthetic values is scarcely accurate. Glass progresses or declines in design and fabric in direct relation to the tastes, habits, and purses of the people with whom it enjoys a common environment.
This is clearly seen in the products of the New England Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for this glass works kept close pace with the trends and tastes of American society in the nineteenth century. Some of these trends are well illustrated in a collection of Cambridge glass at the Toledo Museum of Art.
The museum was founded by Edward Drummond Libbey, who in 1888 moved the New England Glass Company from Cambridge to Toledo, Ohio, where it eventually became the Libbey Glass Division of the present-day Owens-Illinois Glass Company. On its fiftieth birthday in 1951, the Toledo Museum received as a present from the Libbey company its own collection of New England glass, along with a number of technically interesting Libbey pieces, as an addition to its permanent American glass exhibit. For the birthday celebration, Miss Nell Jaffe of the museum staff was able to augment the permanent gift with loans from the families of former New England Glass Company workmen and officials who migrated to Toledo with Edward Libbey in 1888.
From the earliest lead glass produced in Cambridge to the twentieth-century Libbey glass, each example was identified by family or company records. The pieces on display at the Museum show the scope of the New England Glass Company's output, and also reflect the times in which they were made.
The New England Glass Company was founded in 1818, with Deming Jarves serving as manager until 1825. Our knowledge of the early products is scanty, based for the most part on advertisements. We do know, however, that "the company was well launched in the field of mechanical pressing before 1830".
The cut and engraved glass was of the greatest richness and delicacy. According to Laura Woodside Watkins, author of the pioneer work on this firm, ‘Cambridge Glass’, the cut-glass department at one time employed as many as a hundred men. The early cutting was simple, frequently combined with engraving; later designs, in the taste of the times, covered practically the whole object. "In the closing years of the factory," Mrs. Watkins writes, "the fashion changed from heavy substantial glass to ware of almost paper-like delicacy." Colored glass was produced in a wide range of shades, with various types of art novelty wares.
The New England Glass Company maintained a consistently high standard of fine quality lead glass, even in the face of the almost overwhelming competition provided by the introduction of lime glass in 1864. The financial problems which began in the 1860's grew acute in the 1870's. In 1878 the works were leased to William L. Libbey, with his son, Edward D., as partner, the latter becoming head of the firm at his father's death in 1883. Five years later, beset by strikes and other difficulties, Libbey moved the company to Toledo, and continued the business there under the name of the Libbey Glass Company.
Summing up the company's achievements, George S. and Helen McKearin have this to say in their comprehensive volume, ‘American Glass’: "From the very beginning, and throughout its long career, the New England Glass Company produced glass which in quality and purity was not excelled by any other manufacturer in America, or for that matter in any country."